Conceptual Problem Solving in Physics

Jose P. Mestre, Jennifer L. Docktor, Natalie E. Strand, Brian H. Ross

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Students taking introductory physics courses focus on quantitative manipulations at the expense of learning concepts deeply and understanding how they apply to problem solving. This proclivity toward manipulating equations leads to shallow understanding and poor long-term retention. We discuss an alternative approach to physics problem solving, which we call conceptual problem solving (CPS), that highlights and emphasizes the role of conceptual knowledge in solving problems. We present studies that explored the impact of three different implementations of CPS on conceptual learning and problem solving. One was a lab-based study using a computer tool to scaffold conceptual analyses of problems. Another was a classroom-based study in a large introductory college course in which students wrote conceptual strategies prior to solving problems. The third was an implementation in high school classrooms where students identified the relevant principle, wrote a justification for why the principle could be applied, and provided a plan for executing the application of the principle (which was then used for generating the equations). In all three implementations benefits were found as measured by various conceptual and problem solving assessments. We conclude with a summary of what we have learned from the CPS approach, and offer some views on the current and future states of physics instruction.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)269-298
Number of pages30
JournalPsychology of Learning and Motivation - Advances in Research and Theory
StatePublished - 2011
Externally publishedYes


  • Assessment
  • Conceptual
  • Conceptual assessment
  • Conceptual problem solving
  • High school
  • Introductory physics
  • Problem solving
  • Science assessment
  • Science cognition
  • Science education
  • Strategy writing

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Social Psychology
  • Developmental and Educational Psychology


Dive into the research topics of 'Conceptual Problem Solving in Physics'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this